Sometime in the early part of my graduate studies at Michigan State University, my PhD advisor, Barry Gross, told me about the times he spent teaching and living abroad as a Fulbright scholar. As a ‘Fulbrighter,” Barry taught in Turkey and then, later, in Chile. He took his family with him and they traveled all over Europe, the Middle East and South America and he always described these adventures as some of the best teaching and living experiences of his career.
Barry encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship after I finished my degree and secured a teaching position. At that time of my career, though, a Fulbright scholarship seemed so elusive and inconceivable: I had serious doubts I’d even get a teaching job let alone find myself in a position where I was a candidate for a Fulbright scholarship.
This week I’m teaching my final classes as a ‘Fulbrighter’ in Romania. Yesterday I visited one of my colleagues’ classes and talked with the students about American protest music. We listened to Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen and Public Enemy. We talked about music’s power to bring us together as people, to give us courage and energy to do scary things, like (as happened here in 1989) forge political revolutions against oppressive regimes. We talked about music’s ability to convey challenging and subversive ideas to a wide audience and we talked about how political/protest music is often misunderstood or co-opted by the Establishment. The students knew all of the artists we listend to and at times as we were listening to the music, I’d look up to see them singing along with the lyrics. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the Vietnam War and Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried in one class and then in my final class, we will discuss the film, American Beauty. That, basically, has been my life for the past three months and, now, looking back, I can see why Barry encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and I’m grateful to him for putting that idea in my head all those years ago.
I’m also grateful to the late Senator William Fulbright for the legacy of cultural exchange that he established in 1946. In addition to creating the Fulbright Program, Senator Fulbright also distinguished himself as a critic of American imperialism. After initially supporting the Vietnam War following the Gulf of Tonkin crisis, Fulbright emerged two years later as a vocal and public critic of American involvement in Southeast Asia.
In this time of political and cultural uncertainty in the United States and during this period where unprincipled men and women are taking the helm of our ship of state, I take some comfort in the fact that, as a Fulbright Scholar, I have just participated in an important and powerful American tradition of intellectual inquiry and cultural exchange and that these things, now more than ever, are part of the America that I love and feel proud to call my own.
Our talk these days is centered around our next big move. A quick holiday break in Spain and then off to Ireland for the final six months of our adventure.
As we look forward, though, we also look back and think about the storehouse of memories we have accumulated and friends we have met here in Timisoara, Romania.
Last week on our return flight from Italy, Eleanor looked out the airplane window and caught the first glimpse of the lights of Timisoara. “I can’t wait to get home,” she said. Over the course of the last three months, Timisoara has indeed become our home and we will miss our life here.
Unlike some of the other cities we have visited during our stay in eastern Europe (Vienna, Budapest) our Timisoara doesn’t give you a big hug when it first meets you. It doesn’t stand up and announce its beauty and its wit. Our Timisoara doesn’t call attention to itself. It quietly says hello and then walks away, waiting to be discovered. Our Timisoara took a little time to discover, but after we met, and got acquanited, we’ve found a place to call our own.
Well, congratulations, America. You have, among other things, made post-communist, marginally corrupt and economically inefficient nations like the one I’ve been living in look like models of decency, civility and economic opportunity.
When we talk about the New America with our friends here in Romania, they laugh and say everything will be okay. They say that Trump will be controlled and that things will eventually return to normal. I can understand their perspective. After what they lived through, Trump and his brand of xenophobic nationalism looks like small potatoes.
They are, though, by and large worried about Trump cozying up to Putin and his threats to pull out of NATO. Most Americans either don’t know or don’t care that most central and eastern European nations have weak and disorganized standing armies. NATO is their firewall against Russian aggression. One good head fake from Putin could cause Trump to turn his head for a moment and voila any or any number of these nations could be occupied.
I think what’s really going on, though, with my Romanian friends is that they are experiencing a pleasant, yet scary, sense of schadenfreude, the German word for deriving pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. The pleasant part is that we are finally experiencing what they suffered under a hateful, autocratic, intellectually and morally compromised narcissist. The scary part, of course, is that Trump, by nature of the fact that he controls the free world, can, and probably will, make choices that affect all of them, and none of it will be good.
I’ve been aware for a long time that guns are a mighty scourge on America. When my students in Romania learn that there are 30k handgun deaths a year in the States, they shiver. When I tell them that it’s common to get a text from my children’s school in Denver stating that the school is on lock down, they gasp. We (I’m using the term “we” more and more loosely these days when it comes to my attachment to America) are so inured to gun violence that most of us hardly care at all anymore.
But living in Romania, where guns are illegal, creates a very different habit of mind, especially when you go to public places. Here’s an example: we took the kids to a movie tonight and I didn’t think for a minute about the possibility of some crazy person storming the theatre and opening fire. Moreover, I routinely walk around Timisoara, or any other given city in this part of Europe, late at night and I never worry about my safety.
I don’t worry about these things because people aren’t walking around with concealed weapons in their coats or strapped to their belts. Because guns are illegal, citizens can enjoy a greater sense of freedom (yes, freedom from the anxiety of getting shot) and ease. God only knows how guns and violence will spread their already-powerful wings over the nation over the course of the four, eight, who knows how many years.
I’ve also been aware for some time that America is a land that plays fast and loose with the truth. Over the course of this past election season, and as I watch from afar as Trump continues his early morning tweets, it appears that reason and logic have simply flown the coop.
I imagine all those old Philosophy Professors who in the 1990s lost their logic classes to general education curriculum revisions that made way for sexier introductory courses. I can see them all gathered around televisions in university pubs across America, sniggering in their beers and shouting at the the television.
When Trump calls Hillary Clinton “very dumb” the Philosophy Professors leap from their chairs and shout, “Ad hominem attack!”
During the second Presidential debate, when Trump was asked to explain his aggressive comments about women and he kept repeating, “ISIS . . . . ISIS . . . ISIS,” the Philosophy Professors, face palm and mutter, “Begging the Question!”
When Trump tweets “Beyonce and Jay Z, I like them . . . I get bigger crowds than they do. It’s true. I get far bigger crowds,” the Philosophy Professors, sing in unison, “False Analogy!”
When the Philosophy Professors read Trump’s tweet, “14% of noncitizens registered to vote,” they just whisper to themselves, “Bat shit crazy.”
Not that even a national course on logic could save us from the mess we’ve put ourselves in.
I understand why President Obama has to publicly encourage the success of the Trump regime. He has to do that–it’s his job as the leader of the nation and the Commander-in-Chief to keep the ship of state right and true.
It’s not, though, my responsibility to do the same. In fact, I see it as my responsibility to do just the opposite of what President Obama is doing right now: Trump is a demagogue and a nationalist and and his brand of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic henchman must be stopped.
This should be shouted from the rooftops. We can’t wish or cry this away or think that everything is going to be alright. It’s not going to be alright.
Last week the kids and I walked to the train station in Timisoara to reserve seats for our trip to Budapest. The Timisoara train station–it’s called Garu Nord–is a sparse, cold, Communist-era affair. It doesn’t, in other words, say “Come on in!”
We found what we thought was the correct ticket window and waited in line for 20 minutes, hoping that this was the line to reserve our tickets. When it was our turn, we approached the counter.
These are always interesting moments because they can break either way; that is, the person behind the Plexiglas can be super nice and helpful, or he or she can be, well, the opposite of super nice.
I looked at the middle-aged woman on the other side of the glass and conjured up the most charming smile I could. “English okay?” I asked, but I was only met with a scowl. I proceeded in my best broken English, “Reserve. Train. Budapest. 5 November?”
She turned to her computer and began punching numbers into the keyboard. I looked down at the kids and we all just smiled. At least we found the correct ticket window, I thought.
When the woman finished with the computer she turned back toward me and, this time, she looked over the counter and noticed the children with me. Her gaze fell to Eleanor, and her whole demeanor changed. She smiled and for a moment I could see in her face that she was a mother and a grandmother–she knew children and she knew how to instinctively be kind to them.
Eleanor smiled back and the the woman brought her open palm to her lips and blew Eleanor a kiss.
The rest of the transaction proceeded apace and within five minutes, we were walking back out of Nord, Budapest tickets in hand.
I found this to be a curious moment. Why was the woman so scowly with me and why did she melt when she saw Eleanor? Eleanor is very cute and she has a smile that could make the coldest heart smile back at her, so I get that, but I’m no Voldemort either. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it got me wondering why.
Later that day, we joined up with Sujata and we all headed over to Vinilotecta to see Emile. As we were sipping his son’s homebrew, a delicious floral IPA they call “Bereta/Citra,” I asked Emile about our earlier adventure at the train station. “Emile,” I asked, “Why do I always get the attitude?”
Emile looked at me and without a moment’s hesitation said, “Because you look like a bum. Like me.”
This was news to me. I know that I don’t dress like an attorney in a white-shoe law firm, but . . . a bum?
It’s not that I was bothered by Emile’s analysis. I like Emile a lot–he’s a friend–and I was proud and happy that he linked us together around our sartorial choices.
Of course there was no end to the teasing I received from Sujata and the kids after they heard what Emile said. For the rest of the week I was pretty constantly reminded that I was little more than a bum. Fair enough. It was a mantle I was willing and happy to take up.
That said, I didn’t think too much more about it until yesterday. Friday is my teaching day and my classes don’t begin until 4 pm so I generally prepare for class in the morning and then when I’m done I walk to the University to print my lecture and then if I have extra time I go to the library and go over my notes and re-read the texts I’ve asked the students to read. The library at West University is, well, pretty much exactly opposite from the Timisoara train station. It’s new, modern, filled with light, there are clean rest rooms with full soap dispensers and there are lots of comfortable places to sit.
I scrambled up the steps, walked through the doors and then toward the elevator and just as I was about to press the elevator button I heard a very loud voice behind me. “Wow, I thought, someone is in trouble!”
I looked around and saw a middle-aged woman (what do they have against me?!”) approaching quickly and speaking Romanian. She came up to my side and put her her hand on my backpack and them my jacket.
I had absolutely no idea what was going on so I just smiled and gave her my line, “English?” She paused and yelled, “No backpacks or jackets in the library. You must put them in a locker over there.”
I was taken aback by this, but I kept smiling and asked said, “Oh, okay, you know, I’m going to study and my books are in here, is that okay?” “NO! No jackets or backpacks!”
I’m pretty sure that I’d worn a jacket the last few times I was in the library and I know I had my backpack. Was this a new rule? Anyway, I was not about to take off my jacket or take all my books out of my backpack and then carry them upstairs so I kindly thanked the woman, left the library and started walking over to Viniloteca.
Emile was there chatting with some of his friends and they all greeted me with buna zuias and hellos and handshakes. I sat down, Emile brought me a Bereta and I told them what just happened to me at the library. Emile fixed his eyes on me, smiled, shook his head and muttered, “You see, I told you, you are just a bum.”
Emile’s son, Adrian, came in a bit later. We regaled him with the story of my adventure in the library. Adrian had a different theory. He thought maybe the library had gone vegan and they were sequestering leather jackets in the lockers as a result. (I thought that was !@#$%^ hilarious.)
I wondered if my students had any experiences like I had at the library so at the beginning of class, I started telling them the story and as I proceeded, their jaws gradually loosened to the point that by the time I was done, they were on their desks. “Really?” They asked. “This has never happened to any of us.” I think they thought I was teasing them, but of course, I wasn’t, and they were collectively horrified.
So, given all that, I think it’s safe to say that Emile is correct. To most middle-aged Romanian women, I look like a bum. Okay, I’m glad I figured that out.
Prior to teaching at West University in Timisoara, I had zero international teaching experience. I certainly heard lots of stories, though. People told me the European system is so different than ours, that the students came to class if they felt like it, that there was a big plagiarism problem and that, compared to U.S. students, European students in general and Romanian students in particular, are shy about talking in class.
I’ve only taught six classes so far at the University of the West, but each class is 90 minutes long so I feel like I’ve racked up some good contact hours and, at this point, I’m happy to report that none of the complaints above are true. In fact, my experience to this point has been just the opposite: the students are lively, energetic and knowledgeable; they do the reading before class, they are very willing to share ideas and even disagree with me and their peers and they take writing assignments seriously.
They do have a slightly more liberal interpretation of attendance expectations, but that seems to be more of a function of their class schedules; that is, sometimes they get enrolled in two classes that meet at the exact same time. I still haven’t really figured out how that can be, but it’s a reality and it’s common for them, when they are in this situation, to attend half of the classes in which they are double enrolled.
Oh, they also laugh at my jokes, a big plus, and they are also playful. Last night, for instance, after I finished some opening comments, I looked down at my desk and noticed that my book of Flannery O’Connor stories was not there. This is a heavily annotated book that’s not replaceable. “Oh my god,” I thought, I left it in the library and I’ll never get it back!” About a minute later, I noticed one of the students in the back, smiling, almost giggling, and she said to me, “Dr. Fretz, I took your book as a Halloween prank!” I was relieved (that my book was safe) and grateful (you don’t do something like that unless you like the person you are playing the prank on).
I realize all this could change over the course of the next eight weeks and I also realize that, in many ways, there are qualifying circumstances: There are a number of Fulbrighters that come through here, so the students seem to be used to American professors, but, still, I suspect they see me as a bit of a curiosity and in that regard, show their best hand. At the same time, since I am here for such a short time and since this is all so new to me, I suspect that I am more relaxed than I would be in my classes back at Regis so I imagine that my students here are responding positively to that as well.
One of the things that has struck me up to this point, though, is the student’s willingness and interest to talk about controversial and sensitive issues. Last week, for instance, we were talking about two Flannery O’Connor stories in my first class. O’Connor’s characters liberally use the N word so it was incumbent upon me to address that issue straight away with the students. I told them a bit about the history of the word, why it made me uncomfortable and why it’s hurtful to blacks. It was hard to gauge how much they knew about the word, so I don’t want to overgeneralize here, but I can say that I was impressed with their willingness and ability to think through how O’Connor uses the word, how it’s used in popular culture and how the word has different meanings and connotations when it’s used by different groups of people.
One of the funnier moments occurred when we started talking about a reference in one of the O’Connor stories. In “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” a tragically racist character is heading to the Y for “reduction” (weight loss) classes. The students asked me what the Y is so I told them is short for Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA. I noticed some funny looks on their faces and when I asked them about it, they wondered, “Why would she go to a place where gay men hang out.” It took me awhile to untangle that, and I’m not really sure I did it well.
A similar thing happened in my second class where we spent a good bit of time talking about the history and the ideas behind the Black Lives Matter movement. They were familiar with some of the spotlight cases–Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner–and they engaged in a lively discussion about gun laws in the U.S. compared to gun laws in Europe. They were deeply troubled by the levels of gun violence in the U.S. and they wanted to know what was being done to mitigate such violence (not much, sadly, I told them).
Last night, though, during our discussion of two of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, I had perhaps the most profound teaching moment I’ve had in a while. First of all, students (generally speaking) hate Hawthorne. He uses too many words, his sentences are baroque in their complexity and he’s writing about things that most of them don’t care about. Fair enough. I get it. Here, though, I purposely chose two stories–“The Maypole of Merry Mount” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”–because they both deal with issues of religious and political expression and political violence. In “The Maypole of Merry Mount” a band of Puritans break up a pagan celebration (a marriage around a Maypole), kill off some of the Merry Mounters and force two of them–the Lord and Lady of May–to convert to their harsh brand of protestantism. In “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a young boy, Robin, arrives in Boston at the lead up to the Revolutionary War looking for his kinsman, a Major Molineux. It gradually turns out that Molineux is a Tory whose been captured by the revolutionary group, the Sons of Liberty. At the end of the story, Molineux, whose been tarred and feathered, is paraded in front of Robin. It’s pretty ghastly.
Toward the end of our discussion of the Hawthorne stories, I asked the students how they felt about Hawthorne’s portrayal of political violence in light of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. They jumped all over this, making connections, telling personal stories and just generally breathing life into this nearly 200-year old story.
I left class and I felt like I was walking on clouds.
Today, after the kids worked on their maths, we headed to the Museum of the 1989 Romania Revolution for their history lesson.
The Museum tells a tragic but courageous story about ordinary Romanians and how they overthrew Communist rule at the end of the Cold War.
The Romanian Revolution that ousted the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, began on the streets of Timisoara (just steps from our flat) on 16 December, 1989. At that time, Ceausescu had held power in this country for 42 years and during his reign, the Romanian people suffered terribly. Initially it wasn’t so bad, but to pay off the nation’s international debt, Ceausescu started exporting Romanian domestic products. The debt was paid off quickly, but Ceausescu liked the money coming in, so he kept the exports flowing and basically starved his country folk. I’ve read about and talked to Romanians here about those years of empty grocery stores, rolling electrical blackouts and political violence and it’s hard to believe this all happened not that long ago.
The Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989 and a month later, Reagan and Gorbachev met in Malta and effectively dismantled the Soviet Union.
For all intents and purposes, the Cold War was over, but not in Romania, where Ceausescu held on for dear life and continued to deny Romanians access to the news of the end of the Cold War.
Timisoara is one of the western-most cities in Romania–it’s just 20 kilometers from the Serbian border–and in December of 1989, some Timisoara residents were catching the news on their wireless sets: Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the other Soviet satellites states were falling. Peaceful revolutions were happening all over the eastern bloc.
The folks from Timisoara who heard this news wanted in on the new-found freedoms and the spark of the revolution came from a Calvinist minister, Laszlo Tokes. Tokes was a loud-mouthed preacher who spoke up for his kind–religious minorities in the midst of a Communist state. The Romanian authorities, worried about Tokes and his influence, sent him a letter at the beginning of December informing him that they were going to come and arrest him on the 15th. That was a very stupid move on the part of the Communists because it gave Tokes, a masterful organizer, a full week to inspire his parishioners to protest the impending arrest. When the militia came to take Tokes away a group of parishioners made a human chain and denied the militia entrance. Soon, the protest gathered steam and there were hundreds of people sitting outside and milling about.
The Romanian Revolution had begun, and things escalated quickly.
On the 17th of December an emboldened crowd gathered outside the Communist headquarters in Timisoara and destroyed images of Ceausescu. Five hundred and fifty kilometers away, Ceausescu emerged before a crowd in Bucharest, and condemned the rebellious “Hungarians” in Timisoara. He gave the Army permission to fire on the crowds that were quickly gathering in Timisoara’s public squares. In the ensuing days, shots rang out through the streets of Timisoara. Young and old people, peacefully protesting and asking for their God-given rights died in the streets. Soon, people in Bucharest and other cities and towns throughout Romania caught wind of what has happening in Timisoara and, from there, the Revolution proceeded.
Over the course of the December Revolution over 1,000 Romanian civilians were killed by the government and there were over 3,000 casualties. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a kangaroo court on Christmas Day, 1989 just 10 days after the Revolution began in Timisoara and a relatively stable society emerged from 42 years of authoritarian rule.
That, in a nutshell, was my kids’ history for the lesson for the day.